As a prominent orator, author and abolitionist in (1818-95) Frederick Douglass was born a slave. He soon went on to become a world renowned anti-slavery activist at the age of 20 when he managed to escape from slavery. As well as classics of American autobiography, Douglass’s three autobiographies are also seen as important works of the slave narrative tradition. From his attacks on Jim Crow and lynching in the 1890s, and earlier on in the 1840s his abolition activities, Douglass’s work as a reformer had a wide range.
Douglass achieved fame internationally as a writer and a persuasive and inspiring speaker in the 16 years which he edited an influential black newspaper. In thousands of his editorials and speeches, he preached his own brand of American ideals, he embraced antislavery politics, he gave an indomitable voice to his people full of hope and he levied a powerful indictment against racism and slavery.
In the nineteenth century as an orator, writer and abolitionist, Frederick Douglass was the most important black American leader. Douglass was the son of a slave woman , probably with her white master, he was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. At the age of twenty when he escaped from slavery he adopted the name of the hero in “The Lady of The Lake” by Sir Walter Scott. “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845)”, is the narrative Douglass immortalized his years as a slave, this narrative marked his greatest contributions to American culture together with two other subsequent biographies, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881) and My Bondage and My Freedom 1855. His writings were classics of American autobiography and the best examples of the slave narrative tradition, and were written as personal revelations and antislavery propaganda.
Douglass was a master of irony rhetorically as is shown in his famous speech on the fourth of July where he stated, “This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn,” he declared. He then went on to accuse his unsuspecting audience in Rochester area New York of mocking him by inviting him to speak “by the rivers of Babylon, “there to “sing the Lord’s song in a strange land”, a quote he got from Psalm 137, where it shows how the children of Israel were forced to sit down. Few better sources with insight other than Douglass’s speeches exist, that clearly shows how race has caused deep contradiction in American history. “Diseased imagination” was his definition of racism, and there are no better starting points than this.
As a moral crusade against slavery Douglass welcomed the civil war in 1861. During the war on two occasions he acted as an adviser to Abraham Lincoln the president, he was a recruiter of black troops and he labored as a propagandist of emancipation and the union cause. He saw the union victory as an apocalyptic rebirth of America rooted as a nation in the ideal of racial equality and a rewritten constitution. During Gilded Age and Reconstruction some of Douglass’s hopes were dashed, but he continued to travel widely enlightening people on women’s rights, national politics and racial issues.
Douglass moves to Washington D.C. in the 1870s where he became president of the ill-fated Freedman’s Bank and also edited a newspaper. Douglass as a stalwart Republican was appointed to the Columbia District as a marshal (1877-1881) and as a recorder of deeds (1881-1886), and also as a charge d’affaires for Santo Domingo and minister of Haiti between1889-1891.
Douglass soon became a symbol of his age and a unique voice for social justice and humanism due to his heroic and brilliant complex. His willing thoughts and life will forever speak strongly and profoundly to the meaning of being black in America together with a human calling of resisting oppression. After years of hard work and trying to keep a black abolitionist’s meaning and preserving the memory of all the wonderful events he had helped to shape and witnessed Frederick Douglass died.
We see slavery through the eyes of Frederick Douglass which is an eye-opener for the Society. The “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave” seeks not only to advance society on the slave’s predicaments, but to educate as well. The narrative and its influence cover Douglass’s thirst to break free from the confines of prejudice which is the motivating factor of his various biographies. In order to educate the society on the confines of slavery, in his narrative Douglass uses a variety of themes such as symbols and motifs and the major theme is in line with the damaging effects of slavery, whether on religion or slaveholders or even on the slaves themselves to pinpoint the unnaturally of slavery. The primary mission of the narrative was to teach society and humanity in general the unnaturalness of slavery and the consequences it eventually has on not only the enslaved but the masters as well.
It is through various angles that Douglass attempts to reveal the reality of slavery; he pinpoints the unnaturalness of the institution of slavery by using the motifs of victimized female slaves, for example; he describes most vividly the brutal beating of Aunt Hester by Mr. Plummer Captain Anthony’s overseer, here Mr. Plummer leaves her back, shoulders and neck bare he strips her naked entirely and says to her, “Now, you d---d b---h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!” “And he went ahead and lay on the heavy cow skin and amid heart-rending shrieks from her and horrid oaths from him, soon the warm red blood came dripping from the floor”. Douglass’s Henry, Mary, Henrietta and Aunt Hester are portrayed as vivid images of abused bodies and not full characters, as they only appear in scenes that show their master abusing them.
Another motif the author focuses on is the treatment of salves as property. The author highlights the discrepancy of the reality that slaves are not property but human and the slave owners’ belief that slaves are not human. Regardless of where their families are, the author explains how the slaves are passed from one owner to another, and he also mentions how the family separations sever bonds and reveals why “never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, to a point he says “I received the tidings of my mother’s death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger” since he has no ties to his mother due to their early separation since “she was hired by a Mr. Steward, who lives twelve miles away”. With the use of these two motifs Douglass is able to express and also educate society on about slavery and its damaging effects.
The slave owners used several techniques to keep their slaves under control that is; from keeping them ignorant, beating them to having spies among the slaves to be sure of their feelings regarding their conditions. The slaveholders were able to hold on to perpetuate slavery through keeping the slaves unaware of basic facts about themselves such as paternity, or even their birth dates and this normally deny people their sense of identity and makes them ignorant.
The slaveholders also believed that literacy would make the slaves capable of being self-sufficient and by them keeping the slaves ignorant it would enable them to keep the slaves in the extent where their value is on how well they perform productive labor and how long they can maintain control over them.
Another reason why it was important for the slaveholders to keep their slaves ignorant is because knowledge to whatever extent would enable the slaves to view themselves as human beings rather than slaves and it would help the slaves articulate the injustices of slavery to themselves. These views are revealed to Douglass when Mr. Auld explains to his wife that she is not allowed to teach the author how to write or read as, “learning would spoil the best nigger in the world”. Knowledge would bring about an awakened consciousness to suffer and once the slaves are able to articulate the injustices they are going through, they will eventually end up loathing their master.
But slaves cannot escape physically without coming face to face with great danger. In the case of Douglass he was educated on the injustices brought about by slavery by the “Columbian orator” and this helps the author focus on the dialogue between master-slave and the emancipation of Catholics’ hence allowing him to understand why slavery is wrong both politically and philosophically.The Columbian Orator symbol becomes a symbol of articulation, of eloquence and power and of human rights, and Douglass attempts to replicate it in a way in his narrative, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave.”
Douglass’s story begins with his birth and right after he falls into the specific life of being a slave which is a problem in itself. As much as Douglass knew where he was born, he was not aware of the date of his birth and this was a fact that differentiated him from the white children on the plantation who were aware of their ages and hence were able to celebrate their birthdays, according to the author, slaves; “know as little of their age as horses know of theirs”. When the author witnessed the savage beating and the stripping to the waist of his aunt, he became more aware of his status as a slave and the meaning generally of slavery as an institution. In his book one of the more famous episodes involves the author overhearing Hugh Auld, his master, reproaching the wife’s desire to teach the slave to read thus he declares that literacy “would forever unfit him to be a slave”.
J. Blassingame ‘truth, history and divinity met’ words are met when Douglass brings to light how organized Christianity as a whole with only a few exceptions was in support of the institution of slavery and how it claimed it was sanctioned by God, it also when he shows the hypocrisy of Christian individuals who treated slaves in an inhumane and cruel way. The author states that the more a master was religious; the crueler by saying, “of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst.”
Douglass in addition stressed the perversion slaveholding had over religion and to be more specific, Christianity. All through the narrative, the author comes up with the difference between false Christianity and true Christianity, and he clarifies it as being “Christianity of the land” or the Christianity that is forged by slaveholders through immoral and violent actions and the other “Christianity of Christ “or God”. An example of this distinction in the narrative that shows the hypocrisy of the slaveholders shows how Thomas Auld’s brutality increase after becoming a pious man and it is this show of piety that adds to his confidence in his “God given” right to mistreat and hold slaves. The author describes Thomas as a mean man and a slave enough to eat is regarded as the most aggravated development of meanness even among slaveholders.
Slaveholding at the end of the day was not only damaging to slaves but it was damaging to the owners as well, as the irresponsible and corrupt power the slave owners enjoyed over their slaves had a harmful effect on their moral health. The author clarifies this by recounting the number of slave owners that have fathered children with their female slaves, he was an example as his father may have been Colonel Lloyd, and those who had been tempted to rape and adultery, he also is keen to show how the family unit of the slaveholder is threatened as a father is forced to perpetually punish or sell his own child and at the same time the slaveholder’s wife is left feeling cruel and bitter.
Sophia Auld is an affectionate and kind woman with a good nature before slavery corrupts her. In the beginning she treats Douglass like a real human being, educating him and discouraging his servitude. She was corrupted by slaveholding as she was an idealistic woman who was kind in nature and who ended up becoming harsh and bitter and her husband said to her, “if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him”. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him disconnected and unhappy.” She hence ceased to educate the author. Thomas Auld is another example of the damaging effects, he develops a distorted sense of religion and he remains blind to the sins he commits through slavery. Douglass entails, slavery should be outlawed for the great good of the society even in future by illustrating how slavery affects the Aulds and others negatively.
A place where you are not scared of being taken back to bondage is Frederick Douglass’s definition of freedom. Because of the Dred Scott case and the Fugative Slave Laws, Frederick Douglass doesn’t believe anywhere in the U. S is free as there is always a chance of the black man being taken back to slavery. Freedom is being able to have equal rights as others and being able to make your own decisions.
According to the author education is the key to freedom. In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he details on the rewards of his success and the inspiration to succeed. He realized the injustices of slavery by reading.
Frederick Douglass basically set out to teach society on slavery and its reality, its detrimental effects on the society that harbored it and its unnaturalness. He uses his life as a tool to portray this reality, not for any ulterior motives, but to demonstrate to the society of the poison in its midst. He uses motifs and symbols that he faced in his life from literal work that encompasses literary enrichment and slavery.
Douglas, Fredrick. Narrative of the life of Fredrick Douglas an American slave. Written by himself: Boston: Anti-slavery office, (1851).
Willard B. Gatewood. Jr. "Frederick Douglass and the Building of a 'Wall of Anti-Slavery Fire', 1845–1846. An Essay Review". The Florida Historical Quarterly 59, 3 (1981): 340–344.